It was my first visit to the district of South Bermondsey, the home of Millwall FC since 1993. I had expected to meet a partisan crowd keen to cheer their team to victory in a relegation dogfight. But following Latics’ draw at Fulham I was optimistic that they could do even better against a side with much less quality than the Cottagers. Gary Caldwell would have his team play neat and compact in the first half, frustrating the home crowd, stifling their passionate support.
In fact the home crowd was to voice its frustration on several occasions in the first 15 minutes as their team could not string their passes together. Millwall looked a poor side, ready for the taking. But Latics were playing cautiously with Marc-Antoine Fortune a solitary figure up front. Nevertheless their possession football was frustrating both the Millwall team and their supporters.
However, the home crowd was to rouse their team into knocking Latics off their game. For once we had bought tickets in the central stand near the half way line. I had hoped that not only would we get a good view of the game, but be surrounded by some of the more moderate home supporters.
My illusions were soon shattered. As Kim Bo Kyung ran with the ball the crowd around me chanted racist words at him, akin to the politically incorrect term that Dave Whelan had used when referring to Asian restaurants he used to visit as a kid. One fan behind me shouted “stop him”, another took it a stage further with his rallying call of “flatten him”.
Millwall responded to the crowd’s promptings with a series of professional fouls, in an effort to knock Latics off their game. However, Latics stayed relatively calm, retaining possession. Neither side was to produce much goal threat in the first half. Scott Carson had saved Latics after Gaetan Bong ‘s error put them in trouble. The much maligned Fortune should have opened the scoring for Wigan after 27 minutes from a lovely Bong cross but his tame header made it easy for Forde to turn the ball over the bar. It clearly was not much fun for Fortune playing that role as the lone striker, but his lack of running off the ball and inability to stay on side hampered promising moves developing.
Going in at half time with the scores level was a solid base to build upon. Up to that point the referee had resisted much of the baying of the crowd. The atmosphere had almost resembled that of a bull fight rather than a football match. Spectators who had previously looked contemplative would suddenly stand up and shout expletives at the referee and the Latics players. One wondered how long the referee could resist their demands.
But if Latics could continue to frustrate Millwall and their hostile crowd and pose more of an attacking threat, it looked like they could go on and win the match. One wondered if Caldwell would put in Martyn Waghorn for Fortune immediately after the interval in an effort to win the game.
The crowd continued to be loud and vocal, aiming their abuse at the “northerners “, but James McClean in particular. Caldwell was to wait a further 8 minutes before making the obvious change to the applause of the away contingent. Sadly with the crowd baying for blood Waghorn was to stay on the pitch for only 9 minutes, being given a red card after supposedly retaliating following a scuffle. His departure seemed to have provided the death knell for Wigan’s chances, but they could have got on top soon after when a neat move saw Kim pass the ball to Bong who blasted the ball over the top from eight yards.
The referee continued to be swayed by the crowd, allowing the home team to continue their professional fouling. Millwall were to take the lead after 74 minutes when Abdou ran to head in a left wing cross from Harding. Six minutes later the referee made a ludicrous decision in sending off Jason Pearce after he had taken the ball in what looked like a hard, but fair, tackle. He evened things up by sending off Millwall’s Upson with Pearce.
Nine man Wigan continued to attack, but looked vulnerable with only two at the back. Substitute Gueye capitalized on the lack of defensive cover by running through and beating Carson with an angled shot in the last minute.
In the end the partisan home crowd had won the day. They had lifted their mediocre team to a crucial victory that gives them hope of avoiding relegation. However, three of their final four games remaining are away from home. Their home game is against Derby County.
Wigan had by no means played badly. The defenders had clearly been working on their distribution and it was a rare sight to see Carson resist so many chances to hoof the ball upfield. Instead he looked for a teammate nearby with a throw. Rarely can one remember a Wigan Athletic goalkeeper so reluctant to use the throw as a means of launching attacks. He looked almost peeved to have to the throw the ball in this match.
It was pleasing to see Tim Chow being brought on for the final 10 minutes. The young player should really have been in contention for a place back in August, after a fine close season. Caldwell has done what Rosler feared to do in blooding the St Helens-based player.
With just three games remaining, Caldwell will have the opportunity to blood more young players, who will become senior squad members next season as the club downsizes its wage bill.
Summer is likely to see another fire sale as Latics will almost certainly head down a division. The likes of ex-Premier League players such as Carson, McClean and Perch will be sold off to the highest bidder. None of the players currently on loan or short term contracts are likely to be offered renewals, given either their potential salary demands or their performances up to this point. Old favourites like Al-Habsi and Boyce will surely be on their way.
Once again it will be a time of change for Wigan Athletic.